The National Park Service’s Black Confederates

[Hat-tip to Keith Muchowski]

Update #2: The information sheet has been removed.

Update: I just got off the phone with an NPS employee at Governors Island.  It turns out that the document was published just this month and was written by an undergraduate at Columbia University.  The woman I talked to was very nice and encouraged me to contact the individual in question as well as her supervisor.  It looks like the student used titles by Barrow and Rollins and other books that you can find on SCV websites.  In fact, I stated specifically that if I did not know anything about the document’s origin, I would have guessed that it was written by the SCV.  I will keep you updated.  This is a perfect example of why I am so focused on this subject.

Many of you know that I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and their commitment to battlefield preservation and interpretation/education.  Unfortunately, it appears that the quality of historical scholarship that exists at many sites is not uniform throughout.  At least that is the feeling I am left with after reading the following handout from Governors Island in New York City.  I am going to quote the document in its entirety, which includes a section, titled, “Black Confederates”:

Some black Americans in the South left to fight for the Union army, but 65,000 black men served as Confederate soldiers.  The Confederate States Colored Troops were officially organized in 1865, just months before the war ended.  However, many officers ignored rules banning black soldiers and allowed blacks to fight in biracial units.  Other black soldiers fought in state militias.  Free black soldiers were generally paid equally to white soldiers, unlike the disparate pay rates received by white and black soldiers in the North.  Eligibility for pensions differed by state, but black soldiers often did not receive pensions or received pensions much later than white soldiers.  In South Carolina, for example, black soldiers were considered ineligible for old age pensions until 1923. Black men also built entrenchments and fortifications and served as cooks and teamsters.  People fulfilling these jobs for the Army today would be considered soldiers, but at the time these sorts of tasks were not considered real soldiering.  This contributed to the perceptions of many white Southerners that blacks in the Army were more like servants than soldiers.

Black Southerners had many reasons for fighting for the Confederacy.  Like white Southerners, many held strong loyalties to the particular states in which they resided.  Some slaves were offered freedom for serving in the Confederate Army, while other slaves were required to fight or serve in support roles.  Many black Southerners desired the pay offered by the Confederate Army, as well as the new experiences, adventure, and pride that being a soldier entailed.  Other black Confederates were defending their homes from invading Northern troops, who would sometimes capture large groups of slaves to punish white secessionists, as well as rape black women.

I don’t really know where to begin in critiquing this narrative.  I have no idea how they arrived at a number of 65,000.  The author apparently missed the fact that in South Carolina the pensions were given to former slaves and not to black Confederate soldiers.  There are no documented biracial units in the Confederate army that I know about.  At times there is a failure to clearly distinguish between soldiers and slaves.  In addition, it is news to me that a significant number of white Southerners were confused about the status of the presence of black men with the Confederate army.  I am going to try to find out more about this through some friends in the NPS.  Unfortunately, this is as bad as anything you will find on the Internet.

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43 thoughts on “The National Park Service’s Black Confederates

  1. Andy Hall

    Wow. I’ve known some great NPS historians and archaeologists, both. But that’s pretty staggering.

    But it is a government facility, and so should be willing to share information on who wrote that, what the source was, etc. It may be that someone in the park HQ was asleep at the switch and agreed to distribute (or maybe reworked) some academicky-sounding stuff provided by a third party. Or maybe something simpler still — a summer intern with more initiative than supervision. In any case, not what I’ve come to expect from NPS.

    Reply
  2. Brooks D. Simpson

    Wow. Such imaginative detail. Can’t wait to see the evidence upon which this description is based, or how it made it through the vetting process. Frankly, however, the chief historian needs to be presented with this sooner rather than later.

    Reply
  3. Bob Pollock

    I will be very interested in what you find out about this. I have never been to Governors island, but from what I can tell from the website I’m not sure how this would fit with the park’s interpretive themes. No doubt, the U.S. military would be a primary theme, but it would appear that the only Confederates relative to the site would be prisoners of war. Does the park have any documentation that would show there were black Confederate soldiers imprisoned there? That is the only possible connection I can see that would justify the handout.

    Unfortunately, you may not be able to find out who wrote this because site bulletins and other interpretive materials often are not credited to the author, and if this is an old bulletin, sometimes the staff turns over and no one can remember who the author was.

    Maybe when I get to work tomorrow I can send an email to the park’s Chief of Interpretation or the site historian, if you don’t get a better answer before then.

    Reply
  4. Andy Hall

    Would like to know more about the handout itself — was it a professionally-printed, four-color job distributed through the NPS network, or something less formal, run off the copy machine in the back office?

    Reply
  5. Colin Woodward

    Apparently there were more black Confederate troops in the Rebel army in early 1865 than were in Lee’s army outside Petersburg? Pure fantasy. Yes, thousands of African American served in the CSA army in menial labor/support roles, but they were absolutely not soldiers in significant numbers. The Park Service should withdraw this information from circulation ASAP. Did Harry Turtledove write it? Coincidentally, this week, Richmond, Va’s “Style Weekly” newspaper has an article about “black Confederates.”

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Right and once again you head for the hills, cave or wherever you go when you are feeling insecure.

      Reply
  6. Chris Meekins

    I have done some research work on Governor’s Island Confederate prisoners. I have some diary references to the prisoners (officers) being allowed to bring there dog(s) and servant(s). The diary is a Confederate officer diary. I have actually had very positive interactions wit the staff at Governor’s Island; very professional folks.
    Diary is Thomas Sparrow Diary: at UNC The Southern: exert: (all spelling errors mine)
    Jesse Liverman, one of our cooks, has been sick n the Castle but was now well. I had been trying for several <> days to get him back to our quarters without success. Objection was made that I had two servants already from the Castle at our quarters; to wit: Peter McWilliams & M. McLaughin. I offered to exchange Peter for Jesse as we needed the latter & Peter had risen from the position of a waiter boy to a superior & gave us all great annoyance. Capt. Uptograph had promised to make the exchange but like most of his promises he thought nothing about it after it had been made. I seized the occasion of finding Lieut. Buel in a <> working mood to call this matter to his attention. He responded promptly in a half hour I had Peter in the Castle & Jesse at his old quarters, greatly to the joy of all the officers.
    Peter had been greatly petted at first. He was well dressed, supplied with money, & slept in our room. For awhile he did well & gave satisfaction. He went of errands, made acquaintances among the woman of the garrison, attended to our washing, brought water, etc. Soon he became independent. His reverse will teach him a useful lesson I hope.

    Now, I could be mistaken and these men were soldiers but the sense of the entry leads me to think otherwise – I have not researched far enough to track them down after the war, etc. This is early and the officers are treated a bit differently than later in the war. The Gov Island folks let the officers use the US officer library and other such polite things – first staff by regular US vets the prison ambiance changed when those regulars were replaced by recruits for the war.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Chris,

      The woman I talked to was very professional and she urged me to follow up with this. I have no doubt that the NPS will do the right thing. And thanks for the reference.

      Reply
      1. Chris Meekins

        A buddy of mine was able to verify that these men are actually all Caucasians. So, the wind done blown this one away too.

        Reply
    2. Bob Pollock

      Thanks Chris. This is very interesting.

      I just spent two days in long range interpretive planning meetings at U.S. Grant NHS, hashing out park significance statements and primary interpretive themes. Interpretive themes are supposed to be somehow related to the park’s national significance. Aside from the obvious factual errors in this narrative, I just don’t really see how the topic of black Confederates is even related to the resource of Governors Island. The only thing that came to mind was the possibilty of black Confederate prisoners of war. Again, I have never been there, but I would be very interested in what the park’s interpretive themes actually are.

      Kevin, you said this was a “section” of a handout. How is the rest of it related to this?

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        The handout is titled, “Race & Gender during the Civil War” and includes the following sections: (keep in mind that we are talking about a double-sided sheet of paper)

        Privilege, Power & Personal Identity
        New York City Draft Riots
        United States Colored Troops Join the War
        Black Confederates
        Black Civilians
        Female Soldiers & Nurses

        Reply
        1. Bob Pollock

          I looked at the interpretive themes in the GMP linked on the Governors Island website. Someone would have to explain to me how the topics of this handout are related to the resource. For example, was GI involved in the draft riots? Were there USCT units stationed there? Were there black civilians there? Unless I’m missing something, only in the very broad sense that the fort was active during the Civil War and that therefore any topic related to the Civil War is fair game, could you make the argument that the topic of black Confederates is related.

          Reply
  7. Jimmy Price

    And the SCV cried out in one voice, “See, we told you so!”

    That was pretty galling – especially that African Americans fought to defend their women from being raped by Northern soldiers.

    Paging damage control…

    Reply
  8. Margaret D. Blough

    I’m stunned that work this sloppy would come from a Columbia student (My oldest sister and our late father got their Master’s Degrees in Education from Teachers’ College, Columbia University) who was able to get a summer position with the NPS. Furthermore, the History Department has two of the most distinguished Civil War scholars in the country, especially on the issues of slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction Barbara Fields, Eric Foner (according to the Columbia U. History faculty directory, Foner & Fields have neighboring offices) and Columbia administers the prestigious Bancroft Prize in History.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Margaret,

      If I remember correctly, the student in question was in the African- or African-American studies program at Columbia.

      Reply
    2. Kevin Levin Post author

      Margaret,

      You are right in pointing out the presence of Foner and Fields, but I have no idea whether this student has even taken a course in the Civil War. I think this is another example of the extent of the general public’s misunderstanding of the Civil War.

      Reply
    3. Andy Hall

      Cynic that I am, I have to think that this is one of those situations that serves the purposes of the Black Confederate propagandists regardless of how it plays out. (By “Black Confederate propagandists,” I don’t mean folks who actually dig in the records and argue about this or that individual, but rather those who take a handful of dubious cases and extrapolate them out into tens of thousands, contrary to both conventional wisdom and documentary evidence.)

      If the brochure continues to be distributed by the NPS, that counts as a “win” because it spreads the word. If the NPS pulls it, that’s a sort of “win,” too, because it reinforces the complimentary meme that the librul, Yankee, politically-correct, educational elite suppresses the “truth” about loyal Southrons of Color™, and so on. That’s particularly the case here, as the brochure can be spun as being based on “research findings from Columbia University,” and the general public is unlikely to follow through on (or perhaps even understand) the difference between an undergrad class/summer project and original, peer-reviewed and published research.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Andy,

        You are absolutely right, but I don’t think we can worry ourselves about how people, who are committed to distorting the past, will use this opportunity to further their agenda.

        Reply
  9. Marianne Davis

    Please remember that the National Park Service, though staffed by many many dedicated scientists, historians and guardians of our collective past, has made very serious mistakes like this before. In 2003, the Grand Canyon National Park Supervisor refused to allow Park bookstores to carry a book postulating the creation of the canyon during Noah’s flood. That decision was rescinded by NPS in Washington. “Grand Canyon : A Different View”, published by the Institute for Creation Research, was on Park shelves from 2003 to at least 2008, I do not know if it has been pulled yet. In that case, NPS appeared to be yielding to a small but vocal group. In the Governor’s Island case, it looks like NPS has made a serious lapse in judgment just be being lazy and sloppy.

    Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Bob,

          There isn’t much to report. I emailed a few people in the NPS and received a very nice response this morning that the document in question had been removed.

          Reply
          1. Marianne Davis

            I just found the book online at EParks, their official bookstore, and sent the following:

            Ladies and Gentlemen,
            I write in regards a book available on your site, Black Southerners in Gray, which purports to be a scholarly treatise about African-Americans in the Confederate Army.
            I wonder if you could tell me on what basis the Park Service judge this to be a work of responsible history? Is the Service unaware of the controversy surrounding this issue? Is it unaware that the controversy has been generated by the sloppy or nonexistent research behind these claims of masses of black men choosing to serve the CSA? Is the Service unaware that the most vocal claimants have refused to submit their evidence to peer review?
            Giving work like this the imprimatur of the Park Service does nothing to safeguard our shared patrimony. Someone should be ashamed.
            Yours,

            Should I get a reply, I will pass it along.

            Reply
  10. Mitch Kachun

    Kevin, and others on this blog, thank you for your vigilance in monitoring historic sites, media, etc. for such outrageous distortions of history. I reach a few dozen each semester in the classroom, but the NPS and the internet reach many thousands each week. I can’t imagine how much worse things would be without your perseverance.

    Reply
  11. MississippiLawyer

    Ken,

    I have something that you may like given your interest in the topic. When I worked at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, MS, I was doing some digging over at the Archives dept. looking through the personal letters of T. Otis Baker, who was the Captain of Company A, Tenth Mississippi Infantry.

    I was reading through one of these letters when an anecdote he was relating to his wife jumped out at me. It’s been several years now and though I have a digital camera picture of the letter, it is difficult to read. I definitely need to go back sometime and get a scan of it. I don’t have the first or third page of the letter, but I believe he is describing watching another company of his regiment march past his own. Anyways, I’ll write what I’m able to make out of the second page.

    “The Capt. called one of the soldiers out of the ranks. It immediately appeared that she was a woman, a bright young colored girl that ran away and took the bounty —- —- — told the Capt she was with the company 3 weeks drilling & not one in the co. thought she was a woman, but after she was discovered by — —- all the soldiers then noticed her awkwardness.”

    So ya, I definitely need to get back to the archives and get the rest of that letter.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for sharing that. I am definitely interested in the rest of the letter if you ever get back to the archives.

      Reply
  12. EarthTone

    Here is a portion of the document that raised my eyebrows:

    Now… we know that CSA Sec of War Seddon said in November 1863 that “Our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes.” We also know that from the fall of ’64 through winter ’65, there was a huge debate about arming the slaves in the CSA press and government.

    If the claim of 65,000 black confederate soldiers is to be believed, there would have to have been a massive conspiracy/cover-up which hid these soldiers from the eyes of upper level generals, the CSA Congress, and the Davis administration, as well as the southern press. The idea of that is crazy, but these are the leaps of faith that people are making in support of the black confederate legend.

    Reply
  13. Alfred

    Kevin–I’m a little confused here. What are the South Carolina pensions to former slaves that you’re talking about?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      These were pensions given to former slaves who went off to war with their masters. If I remember correctly, South Carolina first offered them in 1923 and approved roughly 320 applications.

      Reply
      1. Alfred

        Thanks. It seemed that was what you were talking about, but I was a little confused when you said ” the pensions were given to former slaves and not to black Confederate soldiers.” I take it the key is SC started giving pensions to former slaves who had served the Confederate army in some capacity. Pretty interesting — and opens yet another window on the ways that African Americans were treated differently from white people in the Jim Crow era. Really appreciate this and your post on the petition for a NC pension.

        Reply
  14. Scott

    I ran over this accidentally in an unrelated internet search, and am glad I bumped into it.

    I think the number…the source slips my mind…is taken from a series of anecdotal Union citizens’ observations during the Maryland and later Gettysburg Campaign. Either way, there are bookoo published sources on the matter. I’d go through several bibliographies and check it out.

    There were Black Confederate soldiers, contrary to Northern myth. Giving this wholly unnecessary war a moral overtone has been the cause to justify it for nearly 150 years. Although it was policy and law that Black men were to not carry arms, there seems many instances where this was completely ignored by local units. One such unit is the New Orleans Native Guard, a wholly African American unit. A corroborated oral account from my own personal experience came from my great grandparents and another son of a soldier in 24TH SC Infantry…who never met one another and lived over 100 miles apart…was that there was a Black solider in the 24th S.C. who would often go over to the Union lines acting as an escaped slave to get food and information. I wished that I could find the name of this fellow and prove it through documentation, but sadly the Confederate company and regimental clerks weren’t too interested in keeping records for us to split hairs on today, or to incriminate themselves by showing a Black man in the ranks as a “Soldier.”

    Apparently, military clerks then did what people have been doing to hide “irregularities” for years: You don’t document your disobedience to the law!

    One of the more documented Black Confederates, Henry Brown of Camden and later Darlington, S.C., does not seem to be on any regimental rolls, but local eyewitnesses by the score validated that he served in the Mexican War, War Between the States, and volunteered for the Spanish American War with the S.C. Organized Militia ( prototype National Guard) company from Darlington. Oh, he was a free man of color, too. Even as late as the Spanish American War, he was not allowed to be on the unit rolls as a “Soldier,” thanks to the racist policies of the Tillman government in S.C. Yep…Ben Tillman, the guy that Wade Hampton, Ellison Capers, and Sam McGowan opposed at every turn.

    The detractors state, “Ahh…but he (Henry Brown) was only the chief musician.” Hmmm…let’s see, the head person over signals on a battlefield, subject to being killed, wounded, captured, and subject to all the other horrors of war? I doubt that anyone would say that a Combat Support or Combat Service Support soldier isn’t a soldier because he isn’t Infantry…egos aside. Tell that to the soldiers in the 507th Maintenance Company who got beasted in the invasion of Iraq. Yet, this same argument is being made against the service of Black men in the Confederate service, but conveniently overlooked in every other conflict until the Army officially desegregated after WW2.

    I know this upsets peoples’ beloved myths, but the whole Postmodernist “groupthink” and templated approach to minorities doing what on what side does little for scholarship on the matter.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Scott,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. First, the Louisiana Native Guard never served in the Confederate Army and many of the men later became USCTs. Please provide a reference for the enlistment papers and other wartime sources demonstrating that a black Confederate soldier served in the 24th SC. What kind of evidence are you looking at here? Is it wartime; if so, is it firsthand or secondhand. Either way, the only evidence that really counts in the end is the enlistment papers and muster rolls. You suggest that military clerks hid “irregularities.” Do you have any evidence for such a claim. If not, then there is no reason to take it seriously. The comparison with the war In Iraq is irrelevant. What we know is that thousands of slaves were present in various capacities in Confederate units. We also know that they did not serve as soldiers nor were they considered to be soldiers by whites.

      Remember, we must stick with the available evidence rather than engage in “beloved myths” “Postmodernist groupthink” or whatever else you want to call it. Please see the following page for further reference as to my own thinking on this subject: http://cwmemory.com/black-confederate-resources/

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      Reply
    2. Margaret D. Blough

      Scott-I agree with what Kevin said. Furthermore, you simply can’t extrapolate between anything that happened in Louisiana regarding slavery and race relations to the rest of the South. The Louisiana experiece was molded by its unique history as a colony held by both France and Spain and its legal system rested on the Code Napoleon, not on British common law. In the French and Spanish colonies, white fathers often recognized their children by enslaved women (they rarely if ever married the mother though). Most free/freed blacks in Louisiana in the antebellum period were free because a white father had freed his child(ren) from a slave mother (in the U.S. there was a period immediately after the Revolution where slaves were free out of a belief in natural rights, not because of any biological connection to the master or his family). They lived in an intermediate caste, identifying with the whites at whose whim the nature and extent of their privileges totally depended. The closest you’d come to this in modern times is the colored caste in Apartheid=era South Africa. The free blacks of Louisiana were not at all pleased to be lumped together with the freed formerly enslaved blacks after the Union regained control of Louisiana.

      The Confederate government was incapable of accepting the services of the Native Guards. As a result, when the Confederate Army evacuated New Orleans when it became clear that the city could not be defended, the Native Gaurds, who had been ordered to accomany the army, refused and offered their services to the Union army. Louisiana free blacks soon fought, with distinction, as part of the Union forces at Ft. Hudson, LA, in May 1863, two months prior to the famous attack of the 54 Massachusetts VI at Batter Wagner.

      Reply
  15. Ray O'Hara

    WOWSER! that is scary. written with such certainty I can see how it could misinform the casual visitor.

    Reply
  16. Brian

    I am a bit late to this thread but this is a personal passion of mine… researching the role of blacks in the confederacy… I have always had an interest in the war but while I have been reading some first hand accounts from the National Archives over the last few years I was drawn in by the Northern accounts of large numbers of blacks in confederate units. This has been contrary to what I have thought and I will continue to dig.
    I think my opinion has gone from skepticism to leaving that space empty for now…
    NPS should take a similar approach to this subject… Although Im not ready to jump on board with the 65,000 number I also am not ready to use todays mindset to define the relationships between blacks and whites in the south prior to reconstruction.

    So although you made progress in having them remove the display I would also not want to see one put in its place stating that blacks in the confederate army is make believe… I think it is gonna take more research…
    My particular interest at the moment is concerning Stonewall Jackson’s church and his teaching slaves to read and write which in most parts was against the law…
    Jury is still out on this one, but believe me if I find anything substantial I will certainly put it out there… Presently I can only find a paragraph here and there but no solid numbers…

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment. You need to read Glenn David Brasher’s new book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation.

      Reply

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